“a translation of myself”: distant transit by Maja Haderlap

is there a zone of darkness between all languages,
a black river that swallows words
and stories and transforms them?
here sentences must disrobe,
begin to roam, learn to swim,
not lose the memory that nests in
their bodies, a secret nucleus.

(from “translation”)

Maja Haderlap was born Carinthia, the southern-most province of Austria, into the Slovenian-speaking minority community that served in the resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War. As a result, they suffered repression during the war and ongoing persecution in the decades that followed. Haderlap was raised in this hostile borderland environment and educated in both Slovenian and German, two languages burdened with conflicting histories and dynamics in the region. She first established herself as a poet with several Slovenian-language collections before releasing, at the age of fifty, her acclaimed German-language novel, Angel of Oblivion. According to her translator, Tess Lewis, her decision to write about her family and community history in German, was controversial, but guided by a desire to reach as wide an audience as possible with a story that was largely ignored or unknown. Now, with distant transit, she has returned to poetry, but, for the first time, through the medium of her second language.

The fact that these poems were composed and published in German adds an extra layer to the themes Haderlap explores. Language and the translation of identity and self-understanding inform the poet’s reflections on home, relationships, and belonging—experiences grounded in her Slovenian culture and heritage, but examined through German and all that that language has afforded her beyond her rural roots. The tension between the two forms of expression comes through in Lewis’ perceptive translation, heightening the emotional impact of this work.

Haderlap’s poetic diction and simple, lowercase form, reward careful engagement. I found that the style encourages a close reading to follow the rhythm and the division of thoughts or sentences. Her imagery is rich, inspired by the natural beauty of her native countryside, yet filled with longing and questioning. Language is an ever present element—what does it contain, preserve and lose as one grows and moves between vocabularies and grammars? And what does it mean to be at home in any one place or community?

                                 language opens
rotted doors, thrusts the dusty boards
from their brackets, reveals the buried stone.
it flies at my face like a flock of startled
swallows, confronts me as the smell of mold,
drops from the jagged armor and
hulls of kids’ stuff like silt shed from all that was.
as soon as its bird heart beats calmly,
it shows its skin, appears unscathed and
hardly used. keep me safe, language,
wall me off against time.

(from “home”)

This collection is steeped in the landscape and mythologies of Haderlap’s Slovenian youth, carrying that foundation into adulthood in an evolving relationship with language—hoping and trusting words to carry memories forth into another time and tongue. It is an uncertain faith. Yet her poetry so vividly captures the possibilities and limitations of translation, that I would suggest that one does not need to likewise live between two languages to recognize the nature of the dilemma. Any one of us who trusts our own memories, emotions and experiences to the vagaries of words—even if in our sole language—worries those same words onto the page. The writer is always recognizing the permeability of the borders and boundaries within their own experiences, translating and transcribing themselves into being, seeking to find preservation and refuge in words. Haderlap speaks to this so acutely.

the shore path is now built up, shifted,
torn out of the meadow and discarded.
i, too, have emerged repeatedly
as a translation of myself,
transferred and rewritten
i appear in a new transcription
although in similar form.

(from “on the shore path in the evening light”)

The poems that comprise distant transit speak to a personal political reality in intimate, yet recognizable terms, echoing the transitions we all experience as we grow into adulthood, away from home and search to find ourselves in the world. More specifically and powerfully though, Haderlap animates the mystery, power and baggage that a language can carry with it, how words and sentences are laden with implications for understanding the past and the present, to articulate one’s identity as an individual torn between two tongues.

distant transit by Maja Haderlap is translated from the German by Tess Lewis and published by Archipelago Books.

you still don’t know / that you exist, & yet: in field latin by Lutz Seiler

i have said
something, sung without
my hands: i have

smoked up all the shadows.
lungward i took these shafts to where
the empty space begins the rustling
      out along the paling
towards the railway cars—seventeen years

before the text.

(from “sentry duty”)

Poet and novelist Lutz Seiler was born in 1963, in Gera, in the state of Thuringia in the GDR and, like many writers from the former East Germany, the arts, as a career, were not on his radar when he was growing up. He was expected to acquire a solid, practical trade and complete his mandatory military service—that was the accepted foundation required to be a productive member of society. And so he did, training as a mason and a carpenter, but during his period of service he began to read poetry, kindling an interest in reading and writing that would ultimately shape his future. He went on to study literature and is now widely recognized for his poetry and prose. German nature poet Peter Huchel (1903–1981) was an early influence on his own writing and, fittingly, in time he would become the custodian of the Peter Huchel Museum in Wilhelmshorst, thus carrying his distinct variation on the same literary tradition into the twenty-first century.

Natural themes and a strong sense of place mark Seiler’s work. This can be seen clearly in his collection in field latin, Alexander Booth’s thoughtful translation of his 2010 publication, im felderlatein. Rooted in the bucolic landscapes of his home state which, prior to reunification, was situated in the southwest corner of the GDR, many of his poems elicit the shifting moods of the borderlands, adding a certain layer of ambiguity to his precise, attentive lyric poetry.

within the fields’ rippling script the glimmer
of a few bricks, some tufts of grass & the small
      rests of bones: how

it all lies together in the end.
arise, ascent & so there was
a lot of signalling, radioing, failure
about my feet, step after step.

(from “what I possessed”)

The poems and sequences in this volume tend to draw inspiration from memories of childhood, family and the peculiarities of rural life. Seiler’s poetic form is spare, stripped down, details carefully selected and characteristically written with ampersands and without capitalization. This style is particularly affecting in German where nouns are typically capitalized, but in both languages the appearance on the page adds a hush to the sound and feel of his poems.

the shadows, aged early, but we
remember: homeward, lonely
simply walking
step by step recording
the silent outline. for

the shadows, at the beginning,
were the small, black units of pay
a currency for which
the creator interrupted his
.        work.

(from “the very first affection”)

Although Seiler’s poetic vision is clearly informed by his own unique political and literary inheritance—as much as any writer’s inevitably is—the deeply personal energy that animates his sparse, well-framed images invites recognition. It speaks to the universality of human experience. We are at once acutely aware of, and haunted by, the world around us. Every environment harbours its own ghosts. One of my favourite poems, “do you see the redbrick moon” evokes the image of an electrical lane. I once saw these parades of pylons marching across the landscape as an invasive species, but have learned to see them as a necessary presence, another creature that one might as well embrace as I do the line that runs between my apartment and the forest:

do you see the redbrick moon
above the eiffel towers? below that
the quacking, magnetic garbling & time
within the frogs’ legs humming?

this is the old high-voltage lane. it
holds the moistness to the poles, holds
the fog & supports it. soft
blue shadows envelop all, a spider

hands always its threads & floats
as if electrified. dreams unearthed.

Alexander Booth’s excellent translation allows Seiler’s poems room to breathe, preserving his unusual syntax and fine-boned imagery and emotion. As a result, in field latin offers a vital introduction for English language readers to the work of this important contemporary German poet.

in field latin by Lutz Seiler is translated by Alexander Booth and published by Seagull Books.

Saying farewell to 2021 with some of the books I loved and best wishes for the future

If 2020 was the year that my ability to read and write felt the numbing impact of a medicated mind, 2021 was the year I had to decide what was really important. My mind is still medicated, but with a drug that does not leave me mentally spongy like the one that I lived on for more than a year. There are pros and cons with any maintenance drug, but I realized that, all things considered, I was better off with the devil I know than the one that was pulling me under. So, by mid-September I began to feel a welcoming release from the haze I’d been struggling against and it became easier to engage fully with literature once again. My reading never stopped, of course, it only slowed, and as I gather my thoughts on my favourite books of 2021, I can see that half of the works I remember most fondly were read in the first two-thirds of the year. But I will admit that every review I wrote during that time was painful, as if pulling my own words together to talk about the words of others was a huge task. In the end, reading only feels like a complete activity if I can articulate a response to each book, regardless of whether it comes out in a “review” of some sort. It is only now that my capacity to read has been restored do I realize how truly impaired it was.

With 2021 and all its global and personal challenges slipping into the rear view mirror, I wanted to take a moment to consider my favourites of the books I read this year. I skipped this readerly ritual last year and, as ever, I am troubled by the fact that each such list necessarily leaves out so many excellent works because, quite honestly, if I am not enjoying a book I rarely feel inclined to finish it, let alone write about it here. So with that in mind, but sticking to a strict ten titles, here’s my contribution to the discussion.

First, my top three. One will be no surprise to anyone who follows my blog: The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghatta (tr. by Teresa Lavendar-Fagan). Probably the last book I read before transitioning off the troublesome medication, this imagining of the final moments of Osip Mandelstam against a tight, poetic flight back through his life thrilled me with its confident sense that sometimes less truly is more. In the reading I would regularly stop to think: How did she say so much with so few words? This is the work of an accomplished, mature writer. Apart from singing this book’s praises at every opportunity on Twitter, I spoke about it about on this video and recommended it in the December issue of The Bangalore Review.

The Book of Sleep by Haytham El Wardany (tr. by Robin Moger) is one of those books that defies classification—standing somewhere between fiction and nonfiction, it can best be considered an imaginative meditation on sleep and the sleeper that leans toward the philosophical in its grounding, but is unbound in its scope. Thoughtful, intelligent, inspiring.

Finally, I read some amazing poetry this year and as usual I found my limited formal understanding of the literary form a barrier to confident articulation of a response, but with Lost, Hurt, and in Transit Beautiful by Nepali-Indian Anglophone poet, Rohan Chhetri, I just wanted to scream READ THIS BOOK! It has disappointed me to see that this collection seems to have been under-appreciated in its US release (it was published simultaneously in India) because it is not only accessible, but gorgeous, and shockingly violent. Stunning.

The balance of my top ten (in the order that stacked best for the sake of a photograph) are:

If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani (tr. by Elizabeth Harris), is the story of a young Italian man who travels to Romania to attend to the affairs of his deceased mother from whom he has been long estranged. It presents a simmering, spare narrative—the kind of read that I responded to especially well with reduced focus and concentration—that resists the need for any tight resolution.

Outgoing Vessel by experimental Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen (tr. Katrine Ogaard Jensen) is perhaps a little more brittle and restrained than Third-Millenium Heart but once again her work takes you on an operatic post-human, yet humane, adventure. Excellent.

Slipping by Mohamed Kheir (tr. by Robin Moger) offers a different kind of adventure into an otherworldly Egypt that is very much informed by a fragmented post-Arab Spring reality. Hard to follow at first, yet fun to read, with much uncertain resolution.

The Desert of Lop by Raoul Schrott (tr. by Karen Leeder). I had been saving this dreamy little volume, knowing that little of this Austrian poet’s work is available in English. The tale of one man’s relationships with three women, it is also a meditation on deserts and the search for home. Exactly the kind of undefinable book I treasure.

Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Interim (tr. by Isabel Fargo Cole) was an unexpected surprise. I’ve read almost all of his work available in translation, and was a little apprehensive about this novel, knowing that he is perhaps at his best in his meandering, surreal shorter works. But this much more conventional narrative featuring another iteration of the classic Hilbig protagonist felt somehow closer to the man himself—a hard drinking, socially awkward, reluctant literary “star” who cannot find a home on either side of the Wall.

With The Promise, South African writer Damon Galgut has finally won the Booker Prize after three nominations and somehow I fear that certain readers might eschew this book because he won this prize (yes we literary folk are a fickle lot). I have long been a fan, and although this book will never replace some of his smaller, quieter efforts in my heart, The Promise is a sweeping portrait of four decades of South African history through the lens of a mischievous high modernist narrator who is by turns, funny, caustic and clever.

And last, but not least, I was offered an opportunity to read a couple of fascinating MIT Press titles by virtue of ending up on a publicist list, and without that I would never have stumbled across Sandfuture by Justin Beal. This is one of those unlikely hybrid essays—a biography of Minoru Yamasaki, the Japanese-American architect who designed the World Trade Centre that is also a reflection on art, illness, urban planning and more—and it works remarkably well. I had so much fun reading and writing about this book that I can only hope that it comes to the attention of the audience it deserves.

For the New Year, I have no specific reading intentions, aside from a small winter project to read some Norwegian literature—no particular reason, I just have a few things piling up and it seems a suitable goal for the cold, dark  months ahead. I’m also hoping to ease back into writing again after a dry spell. Ideas are starting to trickle to the surface, I’ll see if they lead me anywhere. And otherwise I will probably continue my idiosyncratic literary meanderings and savour the ability to read at a faster, yet deeper pace than I was at this time last year.

Oh yeah, and if travel feels feasible again, I hope I might be able to pack my bags and catch up with distant friends by the time this old earth makes its way around the sun once more.  May you be warm, well, and have plenty of light to read by.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber

Retracing a snowy path into the past: Twelve Nights by Urs Faes

It seemed to him that a story told, a story from the past, would never truly fade once it had moved someone. The act of remembering, of reading, was like a return, a homecoming into a story. He was never closer to himself than in the remembered and read.

When I made note of this book last year, I imagined it making a nice pleasant read to fill some of that melancholy time around Christmas and I was not wrong. However, there were several things I had not anticipated. This year, as the holiday drew near, with my cat recovering from surgery, my son started drinking heavily, and all of our modest plans started to unravel. Then, once I started reading, the book itself suddenly seemed more timely than I had expected—I was unaware of the superstition, central to the narrative, that the days between Christmas and Epiphany were traditionally seen as a time of hauntings by evil spirits in parts of Europe, nor was I prepared for the bitter darkness that lay at the heart of this simple tale of a man returning to the Black Forest valley, to the home he had fled decades earlier. Thus, while snow fell outside and temperatures plummeted into the minus thirties Celsius, Twelve Nights, by Swiss writer Urs Faes, became a suitably sombre companion for a holiday more sombre than I’d hoped for.

At a scant 84 pages, this novella moves with the economy and steadily building tension of a well-crafted short story. As Manfred, back home after years in an unnamed distant land, wanders through the winter landscape of his youth, his ruminations gradually reveal what he thinks he knows and what he doesn’t want to face. The snow falls and a cold wind blows. Travelling back through a remembered past, the scenery and weather frame his musings. He has long been estranged from his younger brother Sebastian who, for reasons Manfred can neither understand nor accept, was chosen to inherit the family farm and, in doing so, won the hand of the woman he had loved. Now, so many years later, his parents and his beloved Minna are all dead and Sebastian lives the life of a recluse, while the self-exiled son still carries vestiges of his grief and rage that no amount of time can heal:

He had thought he could hear a humming, wings beating, a whimper drifting up from the valley across the treetops, into this frosty stillness which became entangled in his clothes, penetrating his skin; freezing what was inside him, as though even his heart were turning to ice.

Manfred wants to see his brother again, hoping for what, he isn’t sure—reconciliation, perhaps? There is, as we learn, more to this desired and uncertain reunion. A motivation that drives the returning brother, and an act of violence, buried in the past, that may not be forgivable. These facts are revealed, with only the required detail and much open space, yet it is impossible not to recognize one’s own complicated and conflicted holiday emotions in the longing, sadness, anger and guilt that haunt the protagonist. This is a season that carries a lot of weight for many of us. Twelve Nights captures that mood, but does so with solemn beauty and hope. An ideal read for a stressful time.

Twelve Nights by Urs Faes is translated from the German by Jamie Lee Searle and published by Harvill Secker.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber

Departure is Liberation: All the Roads Are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach

On a journey the face of reality changes with the mountains and rivers, with the architecture of the buildings, the layout of the gardens, with the language, the skin colour. And yesterday’s reality burns on in the pain of parting; the day before yesterday’s is a finished episode, never to return; what happened a month ago is a dream, a past life. (“The Steppe”)

Swiss writer, photographer and journalist, Annemarie Schwarzenbach, remains, coming up on eighty years after her untimely death at the age of thirty-four, an enigma. A striking androgynous beauty, she grew up in luxury, and was dressed as a boy by her bisexual mother with whom her relationship remained complex and codependent.  Yet, a certain estrangement with her family began when she befriended Thomas Mann’s children, Erika and Klaus, both of whom were homosexual and politically engaged in anti-fascist movements. They introduced her to an intellectual environment in which she could express her own attraction to women, but they also introduced her to morphine, leading to an addiction that would haunt the rest of her life. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Annemarie began to travel, frequently on her own, through the countries of the Middle East, forays that would establish her career as a photojournalist. Over the course of her lifetime she would make return trips to Persia, two trips to America, travels through the Baltic States and up to Moscow, but it is perhaps her journey in a Ford, overland from Geneva to Afghanistan in 1939, with ethnologist and filmmaker Ella Maillart, that has become synonymous with the reputation as an adventurous early  LGBT icon that she has acquired since her relatively recent “rediscovery.”

Ella Maillart’s account of their trip, The Cruel Way, was published in 1947, five years after Schwarzenbach’s death from a brain injury caused by a fall from her bicycle. It is considered a classic of travel literature, but the name of her troubled and transcendent companion was changed to Christina, presumably at the intervention of Annemarie’s family. Although Schwarzenbach herself was a widely published author in her time and did manage to place some of her own Afghan-related material while the Second World War consumed journalistic attention, it was not until a curated selection of her essays and reflections on the experience was published in Germany in 2000, that her own version of their journey was given full voice. All the Roads Are Open: An Afghan Journey 1939 – 1940, published in 2011 by Seagull Books, in Isabel Fargo Cole’s lucid translation, offers a mix of automotive adventure and a lyrical, passionate account of a land and the people that enchanted her.

Although I didn’t realize it when I started reading, All the Roads Are Open is not intended as a single cohesive piece, but as a thematic, roughly chronological assemblage of short pieces written largely as Schwarzenbach made her way by steamship back to Europe from Bombay. As such the “chapters” have a quality not seen in more typical travel writing—these are descriptive passages tied to communities, encounters, and landscapes, and the images which hold most vividly in her memory drive her account and are revisited in several pieces. Thus it is clear which experiences had a profound impact on her. At the same time, there is little about the deterioration of her relationship with Maillart, and no mention of her romantic attractions or resumed drug use (if such material exists at all as much of her work was destroyed by her mother after her death), but a kind of sadness and isolation does rest beneath the surface in some passages. As well, certain described episodes seem to be the possible product of poetic license, but none of this matters; Schwarzenbach leaves us with a memorable, exciting and insightful look at a way of life in Afghanistan that was on the verge of disappearing—in more profound ways that she could have imagined.

The journey, two women travelling alone across a rugged, lonely terrain on roads that could fade into rough tracks, was met with concern and skepticism by many. Schwarzenbach revelled in the independence and their decisions to take the more challenging routes—confident in her ability to make basic repairs on the road or, if needed, secure assistance from the rare individuals in the communities they passed through who might have any experience with cars. Her description of Mount Ararat is moving, her evocation of desolate landscapes graphic, her account of three passages over the Hindu Kush invigorating, and her remembered belief that they never had to worry where they would stay, or how they manage is admirable. She speaks regularly of the warmth and hospitality of the Afghan people, be they nomads on the plains, or leaders in towns and villages. It is, again and again, her most cherished memory. Her writing, at times punctuated with a plethora of exclamation marks, is neither idealistic nor romanticized, nor condescending. But, by contrast, she has a few choice comments for some of the British and European expats they live among in Kabul or others who display their prejudice:

Recently, a Swiss man asked me whether the natives’ food was even edible and whether I hadn’t been afraid to sleep in these people’s midst without any protection. The good man really had no idea of Afghan hospitality! Despite the various mentions here of rich, spicy pilaf meals, it must be said that by far not all the inhabitants are able to afford rice and mutton. In the nomads’ tents, there is often nothing but sour milk and a little bread. And in many villages the poor people don’t even have that. In Turkistan, where the gardens and bazaar stalls brim with fruits in the summer, a few months later I saw the relentless winter loom. Then the same landscape was reduced to a wasteland scourged by the icy wind and cloaked in dense swaths of dust, and life in the farmers’ clay huts was quite spartan. But despite these worries, it was at this very time that laughing, waving women met me in the last village on the desert’s edge. (“Two Women Alone”)

One thing that does regularly concern Schwarzenbach, however, is the life of the girls and women in the communities they pass through. As an emancipated woman, the sight of another woman encased from head to toe in some regions is disturbing. But even in other towns and villages, a visible absence of women is noted—they are not seen. However, when invited into the inner garden of one home where their host’s wife and daughters greet them without head coverings, the travellers are able to enjoy a precious interaction afforded to them because they themselves are female. For Schwarzenbach there seems to be great satisfaction in engaging with women and, at the same time, being included with the men on hunting outings, as she is during a period when she works temporarily on an archaeological dig.

Once war is declared, the political climate in the world starts to shift, and Schwarzenbach’s restlessness grows. As the end of 1939 draws closer she prepares  for another departure, anticipating climbing the Khyber Pass in her beloved Ford and passing into India, on the first stage of a journey home. But, even as the steamer pulls out of Bombay, it is evident that Afghanistan has touched her deeply. More than she anticipated, perhaps. One of the most poetic essays, placed at the end of the penultimate section of the book, is “Chehel Sotum,” in which she recalls an experience years earlier at a small palace in the Persian city of Isfahan.

The palace, whose name means “Forty Pillars”—a reference to its twenty pillars and their corresponding reflections in its pool—inspires an Afghan friend to inform her that in his homeland there are forty kinds of grapes:

Overcome by memory and homesickness, he spoke of nothing but the bewitching forty-fold profusion of the grapes of Herat and Kandahar. But though I listened to him and these words about the forty kinds of grapes lingered in my mind, tied to the vision of a promised land, at the time I did not even desire to set foot there. You cannot love what you have not embraced and seen with your own eyes; longing itself is never anything but loneliness surging and bleeding away.

Once she had herself embraced Afghanistan, she understood. One can only imagine how she would be heartbroken by the tragic condition of the country today.

All the Roads Are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, and published by Seagull Books.

A different kind of time made visible: The Desert of Lop by Raoul Schrott

Many things are contained within others, and not only in names; in the north there is also a south and a west. The Badrain Jaran desert is indeed to be found within the Gobi desert. But it too contains within it the Takla Makan. And within that again, somewhere there, even if not precisely there and now, lies the untouched centre of the earth, the Desert of Lop.

What is the meaning of home? Is it a place, a person, a state of mind? Some know without question. For others it is an idea that is impossible to hold on to—like a handful of sand, it slips through your fingers. That is the essential spirit that comes through in Raoul Schrott’s delicate, spare novella, The Desert of Lop. Over the course of 101 very short chapters, almost prose poems but not quite, it traces one man’s relationships with three women, the places those relationships take him and the way they became undone. Detail is scant, connections are sketched and filled in with images of sand—dunes, storms, waves of shifting sand.

Schrott, an Austrian poet raised in Tunis, has an interesting background. He studied philology, had a strong interest in Dada and surrealism, has translated and adapted Homer and Gilgamesh in German and speaks a number of languages including Breton, Basque, Corsican and Gaelic. I first encountered him through his extraordinary, sensual unclassifiable work The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in their Heaven, a collaboration with Italian artist Arnold Mario Dall’O which was published by Seagull Books in 2018. Loving it, I immediately sought out any other available works in English. The Desert of Lop, written in the same general time as Sex of the Angels, but published in 2004 (and likewise translated by Karen Leeder), was all I could find and, even then, it took some time to track down a copy.

In simple terms is about a man named Raoul Louper who is living in a village near Alexandria in a simply furnished room. The only described decorations are three objects in the window—a pine cone, a gree-gree (an African charm) and a stone—mementos of three women he once loved. Francesca, Arlette and Elif. Each week he takes the bus to Cairo. He meets with Török, a Hungarian professor with whom he visits geological formations in the area. They share an obsession with sand. Sometimes he joins the professor and the Egyptian woman he lives with for supper. As his story unfolds, they offer a solid counterpoint to Raoul’s restlessness. They have created a home, the very ideal Raoul seems to long for and yet cannot realize. They listen to him, challenge him, and all though his wandering carry him around the globe, it is in their kitchen that his life seems to have any tangible form at all.

His first wife he met near Grosseto on the Mediterranean. Francesca, is a free spirit when he they meet; he is equally ungrounded. Once he has made enough money he leaves for Japan—images from the country punctuate the text but his stay is not described—and when he returns he and Francesca make an effort to make a life together. Without success.

His second wife, Arlette, he meets in a bar in Quimper, a city in Brittany in northwest France. He finds work on a trawler out of the French islands of St Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland, across the Atlantic. With his pay he drives across the US to see the western edge of the Pacific and slowly makes his way back to Quimper where, before long, the walls close in on his relationship with Arlette.

In Raoul Louper’s love for Arlette there was always something that was still waiting to change shape. It was like one of the drawings of a Necker cube that one finds in magazines sometimes; its upper edges can only be held in the foreground if one concentrates hard.

He sometimes looked at Arlette absent-mindedly. She did not know what to make of it; she thought when he looked at her it was always with questions.

Raoul avoided giving an answer; there are some things one does not say to a woman if one wants to love her.

The third woman, Elif, comes in to Raoul’s life in Iquito, Peru. Twice abandoned by love, he has accepted a job offer from a man who, having won the lottery, left Naples to set up a hotel in South America. Elif is working as a guide in the National Park, but it turns out that she grew up in Toulon, Raoul’s birthplace, and that they share a birthday. Despite being very different, these unlikely similarities lead, in time, to love. This, is the relationship that will cover the most mileage, first back to France when Elif’s job ends and eventually on a  journey into the desertified heart of China where too much togetherness threatens to push them apart.

Like Sex of the Angels, this is a very sensual work, not just in the remembered intimacies of love, but in the description of sand, deserts and the dunes that rise and fall across the landscape. Scientific descriptions are woven into the overall narrative, at times directly, at other times in the observations of Török or others, but always with such a light, poetic touch, that it never feels contrived. Sand, sculpted by wind and time, is an essential element of this tale, a story that builds layer by layer, but retains a haunting sense of instability and incompleteness.

Is a sand dune ever a finished object?

A dried-up riverbed, or the arms of a delta, drought; a bush, some pebble or other, even a termite mound, sometimes: it’s all the wind needs.

In the wind cornices line up and grow into dunes; they form chains and banks, they take on the shape of an egg, a heart or a star.

The suspended load of the wind; it blows each grain of sand from the windward, hardly higher than a foot or two off the ground, until they are pressed together on the crest, only to slip down the steep face in its lee; it is just the same as with waves.

The Desert of Lop maintains its inherent spaciousness through its narrative voice. The elusive narrator speaks of Raoul in third person, telling his story for him from an uncertain vantage point—sometimes slipping into a scene or adding a comment in first person, as if a companion on some outing or otherwise present—but the exact connection is unknown. Yet the haziness of the boundary is acknowledged: “It is no longer me telling this story. It has long since grown beyond the evenings in Cairo, the table with its chessboard pattern of tiles.”

As spare as it may be, especially for readers unaccustomed to checking a map or slipping down rabbit holes, this is not a directionless narrative. China is on the horizon throughout. Elif and Raoul embark on a journey to Dun Huang, the ancient city on the edge of the Gobi desert with its Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. With their guides they travel through distant provinces—Kamul, Tangut—in the footsteps of Marco Polo, following after Genghis Kahn, moving inexorably toward the extinguishing of anything that might hold them together against the shifting sands of time. Along the way: Lop Desert. Barren. Flat. Once the likely location of a lake, and of life more plentiful and diverse than that which remains, it became, as many other desolate locations have, ideal testing grounds for nuclear weapons. For we allow imitations of our destructive potential to proceed in the natural spaces we consider empty enough to bear the weight of our sins. As the desert will test Elif and Raoul. And his longing for some vestige of home.

The Desert of Lop by Raoul Schrott is translated from the German by Karen Leeder and published by Picador.

Rumors, riddles and other stories: Anecdotes by Heinrich von Kleist

Sublunary Editions, the humble publishing venture started by Joshua Rothes in Seattle, Washington in 2019 has, over the past few years, expanded from a simple monthly newsletter featuring new works and/or translations, to a quarterly journal called Firmament, the Empyrean series of obscure/hard-to-find literary treasures, revived, researched and restored, and a growing catalogue of original and translated novellas, stories, poems and hybrid works. Best of all, the books are all small, shorter volumes easily tucked into a bag or jacket pocket to read on the go.

Their most recent offering, Anecdotes by Heinrich von Kleist is a perfect example of the kind of work that sets this small publisher apart. In his tragically short life, Kleist packed a lot of living—writer, dramatist, soldier, possible spy, and during his final year, newspaperman. When he died by suicide at the age of thirty-four, he left behind a profoundly influential body of work. This collection of short stories and anecdotes originally published on the pages of the Berliner Abendblätter, were written over the course of one year, between 1810 and 1811, the span of time from the daily newsheet’s inaugural issue to their author’s death. As such they represent the first extensive collection of Kleist’s short work in English translation and an important, exciting addition to the Sublunary line-up.

Born in Frankfurt an der Oder in 1777, Kleist lived during a particularly unstable era in European history. Conflict with France was the major political concern for the German states throughout his adult years, and he served in the Prussian Army, spent some time in prison, and became an early supporter of German nationalism. He would come to be known as one of the finest literary stylists of his time, but during his lifetime he realized little of that acclaim. His daily compositions for the Abendblätter, from which the pieces in Anecdotes are drawn, provide a somewhat different insight into his gift for wit, satire and social commentary. Kleist was the editor and chief contributor to this publication and, as translator Matthew Spencer notes in his Introduction, this forum shows him to be “studiously evenhanded” taking aim at his subjects from all sides. At least while he was at its helm, the paper showed great promise. But it would not last long and might well have disappeared from memory altogether if not for a fortunate circumstance:

while Kleist began, through his plays and novellas, his posthumous ascent into the literary canon, the anecdotes remained largely underread, out of print. Much of the Abendblätter would have been lost if not for the Brothers Grimm, who collected issues specifically for the anecdotes, considering them small masterpieces of vernacular literature.

Although the critical value of these stories, witticisms and anecdotes, was debated by many, future admirers like Franz Kafka and Robert Walser, found in them an inspiring comic spirit to treasure.

The works collected in this volume run from the absurd to the tragic to the ribald, and are at times, remarkably timely. Some read as historical accounts, some as mock news items, and others as entertainments. Healthy doses of sarcasm drive home subtle and not so subtle attacks on military culture and the art of war. Folk tales and fables take clever turns. A few may miss the mark (or may have not survived the distance from their original context), but most of his tales are quite funny—even if darkly so. Where a little extra background is needed, Spencer includes brief historical or linguistic footnotes.

The pieces gathered here range from very short amusing accounts, bizarre Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not type reports, to imagined news stories and, even, in one instance, a letter to the editor (crafted by Kleist himself of course) responding to a “reported” proposal for a cannonball postal delivery service. The postal system, it seems, is a an ongoing concern going back centuries. Another anecdote echoed almost a century and a half later with the play Twelve Angry Men, is “A Strange Case in England” which records the debate among a dozen jurors in a murder case but which ends with an unexpected twist.

As much as I enjoyed the anecdotes, my favourite pieces were the last two, somewhat longer stories, “A Ghostly Apparition” and “Saint Cecilia or the Power of Music.” Both are more along the lines of gothic tales but demonstrate Kleist’s ability to tell a solid, entertaining story. While the original issues of the Abendblätter would have included more conventional “news” and “information”, the selection for this project was guided by literary interest. As such, Anecdotes provides either an excellent first introduction to Kleist or a welcome treat for English language readers who already know him well.

Anecdotes by Heinrich von Kleist is translated by Matthew Spenser and published by Sublunary Editions.

Station to station: The Interim by Wolfgang Hilbig

Will we survive this century? asked the lonely reader in his train compartment. Yes, surely we will survive this one last century.

East German author Wolfgang Hilbig was not the kind of writer one associates with sunshine and bucolic scenery. His skies seem to be forever suffused with pale white winter sun, his landscapes marked by the residue of post-war industrial expansion, his urban streets draped in shadow lit only by dim pools of artificial light. His characters typically wander through this environment, never certain where they came from, where they are going and who they are meant to be—pulling and chafing against the constraints of a life they cannot fit into. Their situations and circumstances vary, but they are all lost in some kind of provisional existence.

The Interim, the most recent Hilbig release from Two Lines Press, takes, as the name implies, this sense of impermanence and makes it explicit. This novel, originally published in 2000, is, as with previous translations, rendered into fluid, incisive English by Isabel Fargo Cole. It follows the emotional and physical restlessness of C., an acclaimed writer from the GDR who is afforded the tenuous “freedom” of life in the West in the years immediately leading up to reunification. It is a time of shifting energies on both side of the Wall and C. finds himself completely adrift, caught between the crumbling social infrastructure of his homeland and the hollow promise of Western capitalism. He endeavours to perform the part of the celebrated author, often without either ease or grace, while he struggles with writer’s block and resists committing to the woman he genuinely feels he cannot live without. Trapped in a cycle of relentless anxiety, depression, and addiction, his only refuge is the train with its familiar chain of stations carrying him back and forth across the border, between an equally elusive past and future.

To be honest, I was apprehensive about this book, afraid somehow that it would be a 300-page pilgrimage through one man’s dark and decaying life, claustrophobic and bleak. And, in a way, it is most of those things except that Hilbig is an exceptional writer. Even if he is, as ever, narrating from the edge of his own existence, he has, in this novel, wisely stepped back into a more conventional third person perspective to examine his protagonist from the distance necessary to be honest—to his character and to himself. The result is an engaging narrative tracing loss, displacement, creative struggles and romantic failures washed down with too much alcohol and self-loathing. There are unpleasant moments—wandering about drunk in strange cities, taking in pay-per-view porn with an almost clinical sense of disconnect, mopping up vomit with a book from the “Holocaust & Gulag” section of his personal book collection—but the main thrust of the narrative is fueled by real human longing, stark humour, and much of the kind of mesmerizing existential questioning that drives the dreamlike, meandering narratives more typical of his work.

C. is, by the time we encounter him, living in Nuremberg. He has been in West Germany, for several years—how many, he is never sure—with an expired visa, living in a small apartment near that of his girlfriend Hedda who is losing patience with his constant insecurities and consistent unreliability. Back in Leipzig there is another girlfriend, Mona, whom he has avoided on visits home but has never properly broken off with. Both women are aware of and challenge his insistence on holding to a series of “interim solutions” as an excuse to never have to accept any tangible solution to the existential restlessness that haunts him. But there is a sense, for C. that his entire identity is false, lacking, provisional. Especially as a writer in the increasingly forced ecosystem of the literary world around him where authors use their miseries justify their writings:

in some convoluted way he believed in the creative power of tormenting experiences (while Hedda disputed it, claim­ing that pain merely silenced people), and he’d always sus­pected himself of lacking that experience. – In fact he’d always written offhandedly, looking away from his words, which had flowed from him effortlessly. In his life he’d never done a stroke of real work, he’d done everything in passing, for the interim, as it were. The real thing is yet to come, he’d always thought, as though he had infinite time at his disposal. Now he was pushing fifty—just three years left to go—it was high time for the “real thing”…and suddenly nothing was coming at all!

If The Interim never expanded its focus beyond C.’s self-recriminations, sodden or sober, it would run the risk of becoming weighed down by its own protagonist, spinning through a circuitous, non-chronological narrative that turns in on itself to travel wide but get nowhere. But C.’s inability to find himself reflected in his own country’s marginal, backward declining state, or the West’s flashy commercialized culture of consumption, allows Hilbig to make sharp, cynical observations on the state of the world as the twentieth century is nearing its end. A century of lies, as C. describes it. Technology has fostered progress and destruction, looking back to the horrors of the Holocaust and the Gulag, and ahead to the escalation of depersonalization and commercialism under the force of Capitalism. Is the latter a saviour from the godlessness of the former or simply a new God? C. is not so sure as, from the window of a West German train, he observes cars racing along the autobahn:

Disciplined and united in close-massed squadrons, united for one minute, identical lobotomized brows behind the windshields, bodies perching their death-packed asses on a power that wasn’t theirs, fused to a steering wheel that mastered their fists, they’d flee onward as if set in motion by the lash of a great herd-driver’s whip. And that great shepherd was Capital…he said to himself each time he looked out the window of the train at the inter­twined chains of dimmed headlights, a light-suffused gas-cloud over them, a cloud of sweet Arabian perfumes as of burning pipelines, a cloud of colored miasmas that drifted along with them as they rushed down the course in formation, gigantic glittering automobile hives, and the shepherd whipped them on from one gas station to the next, where they filled themselves with their manna, tanked up on their divine gas. – Stick it to them! cried the shepherd, their God, who had long since grown weary of his flock.

If C. can never quite decide which side of the border he belongs to, within West Germany itself he is equally unsettled. He moves several times and travels for readings, tracing a network of cities through their train stations, their hotels and their seedy bars. He convinces himself that Hedda is the reason he stays at all, but he cannot understand why he seems destined to sabotage what they have. Whether it is a fear of failure or a fear of commitment, Hedda is certain that the problem, not only in their relationship but in his inability to write, lies in an unwillingness to address his childhood fears.

One of the later sections of The Interim takes C. back to memories of his childhood and youth, to an early secret love of writing through his lonely apprenticeship in a machine shop. His writing remains a hidden activity for many years, while conflicts between what he longs to be and what others expect him to be grows wider, more fraught, echoing themes that course through the pages of Hilbig’s strange and wonderful novellas. This book is essentially about becoming a writer and coming apart as a writer, while clinging to a transitional existence during a transitional time in history. In turning C.’s trauma into literature, Hilbig accomplishes the one thing the novel’s protagonist is presently unable to do.I have read, and written about, almost all of Hilbig’s work translated to date and have had the opportunity to discuss it at length with Isabel Fargo Cole who has done so much to help bring his writings to an English language audience. I loved this book. But I am not certain if I would recommend it as an introduction to his idiosyncratic writing. I feel somehow that if one has read and enjoyed other titles, especially Tidings of the Trees, Old Rendering Plant and his short story collection, Sleep of the Righteous, The Interim will feel like an opportunity to see the “Hilbig protagonist” and his creator in what might be his most true-to-life work—gritty at times, melancholy and dark, but filled with powerful language and insightful observations. Be warned, though, C. is an anti-hero unlikely to find redemption or accept it if offered.

The Interim by Wolfgang Hilbig is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Two Lines Press.

Eating Cheaply: The Cheap Eaters by Thomas Bernhard

A new edition of a lesser-known Thomas Bernhard novel is, for those of us who collect his varied works, a reason to be excited. Originally published as  Die Billigesser in 1980, The Cheap-Eaters rests more than midway through the Austrian writer’s career, and offers another nourishing helping of his idiosyncratic style of long-winded, circuitous, single-paragraphed fictional expositions of human eccentricity. Now in a fresh new translation by Bernhard enthusiast Douglas Robertson, Spurl Editions has served up this novel, or novella, in a handsome, nearly pocket-sized volume—a virtual literary take-away, the perfect companion for, say, a saunter to a nearby park for a little open air reading in these days of pandemic defined recreation.

Coincidentally, it is a walk to a park that stands for Koller, the protagonist of The Cheap-Eaters, as the single most important factor leading to the discovery and facilitation of his life’s work. As our unnamed narrator, an old school friend, explains at painstaking length, his, Koller’s, chance divergence from the park that was his usual destination to another where he encountered Weller, an industrial glassmaker, and his dog was a pivotal event. A most fortunate misfortune. The dog bit Koller’s leg which in turn had to be amputated, and this injury not only provided, via a lawsuit, a guaranteed income for life, but it also caused him to happen upon the cheap-eaters when, after his release from the hospital, he stopped into the Vienna Public Kitchen, or VPK. The four regular diners welcomed him, one-legged and with crutches, into their fraternity and over time they became the subjects of what was soon to become his obsession: his so-called Physiognomy.

For years he had fraternized with the cheap-eaters and had eaten cheaply with the cheap-eaters, had eaten more cheaply with the cheap-eaters than anywhere else and actually he had never eaten both as cheaply and as well anywhere else, for in the VPK he, Koller, had always eaten cheaply and well and he had never yet been able to eat both more cheaply and better anywhere else. He said that he actually owed to the VPK nothing less than the fact that he was still alive today; nothing less actually than the fact that I still exist! he had once exclaimed in my presence, and nothing less than the fact that he had made it through so many appalling Viennese years…

More than a place to partake of the cheapest of the available cheap meals with such suitable companions, Koller credits the VPK with his bodily existence, and more critically, his very intellectual existence.

At the point in time when our narrator is winding and unwinding his long-winded account of his somewhat repellent and yet somehow appealing friend, this friend, Koller, has already devoted himself to his particular studies for sixteen years. He is now, he says, ready to begin to unveil his findings. It is, of course, perfectly fitting that a Bernhardian hero should be consumed with an appropriately outdated pseudoscience like physiognomy, the supposed practice of determining a person’s personality from their external appearance, especially facial characteristics. Koller speaks of his Physiognomy with reverence; he approaches it, as one would expect, from the altitude of his superior intellectual energies, devoting his full attention to understanding it through careful study of his constant dining companions.

If The Cheap-Eaters purports itself to be a novel about the four men who gather together, with Koller, to eat cheaply at the VPK, it is, yet it is more explicitly an expose of Koller’s own eccentricities as recounted by a narrator whose own attraction to his subject is as curious and questionable as Koller himself. And given the way our one-legged hero is portrayed, one might even suggest that the cheap-eaters who so dominate his thoughts are remarkably normal by comparison. But then, this is Bernhard and would one expect anything less?

He had always felt sorry for so-called healthy people because in his view they never emerged from the swampy lowlands of absolute intellectual torpor and moreover were condemned to languish all their lives in this brutish intellectual torpor of theirs, no matter who they were and no matter what they did, and he despised them quite openly and invariably seemed to derive a certain enjoyment from this contempt of his for these miserable, good-for-nothing, mind-damaging creatures as he had actually once described them to me verbatim.

Anyone familiar with Bernhard in his longer form work, will not be surprised to find that the narrative progresses in a doubly-, sometimes triply-nested and convoluted fashion, treading over the same well-travelled ground repeatedly, slowly adding new details and bits of commentary along the way. Robertson’s translation handles this labyrinthine movement nicely. And, of course, all this wandering is rewarded as everything begins to take shape, the cheap-eaters are finally given individual dimension, and then—well, you have to read it yourself to find out how the story concludes.

I will say that The Cheap-Eaters by Thomas Bernhard, translated from the German by Douglas Robertson and published by Spurl Editions, is a welcome addition to my own curious and eclectic collection of Bernhard’s work.

The only word I know for ‘gone forever’ is ‘today’: Porcelain by Durs Grünbein

In the winter when cupola and dome are white with snow,
the ravaged city fills my soul with shame, simply shame.
Rubens, Rembrandt, Raphael—then nothing more to show…
Your downfall is the stuff of trashy melodrama.
How long ago was that? Don’t ask me, I can’t say.
The only word I know for ‘gone forever’ is ‘today’. (8)

The German city of Dresden, once known as Florence on the Elba, was long renowned for its Baroque architecture and pleasant climate. The Allied air raids that began on February 13, 1945 rapidly reduced this jewel to an eerie landscape of hollow structural supports rising out of a sea of rubble. 25,000 souls were lost in the firestorm and it would take decades to clean up and restore the damaged structures.

Buildings can be rebuilt, but the legacy of the bombing of Dresden is complex. The action was met with controversy among Allied forces, the losses exaggerated for effect by the Nazis, and the destruction doubly symbolic—first of German suffering in the war, second of lingering guilt. So, there is no one black-and-white way to understand this event, a reality that German poet Durs Grünbein explores in his book-length cycle, Porcelain: Poem on the Downfall of My City. What began in 1992 as an annual ritual to mark the anniversary of the bombing, would eventually be published in 2005 as a sequence of forty-nine ten-line poems, rhymed and classical in form. Now, seventy-five years after the fateful air raids, the first English edition has been released with extensive notes, extra images and an additional, newly composed poem, translated and introduced by Karen Leeder.

Born in Dresden in 1962, Grünbein grew up amid the physical and psychological ruins of his hometown, surrounded by the historical and symbolic weight it carried, but without claim to any direct experience of the devastation. This temporal and emotional distance colours his poetic reflections while offering a double-edged sword to his critics—he was accused of both daring to intrude on the suffering of others and failing to do justice to the true horrors the city endured. In anticipation of this, the opening lines of the first poem in his sequence read:

Why complain, Johnny-come-lately? Dresden was long gone
when your little light first appeared on the scene.
Moist eyes are not the same as grey hair, son. (1)

Right away he is giving space to his would-be detractors and the lines that follow set the tone for what will not be a straightforward elegiac exercise.

As Grünbein strives to make sense of the bombing of Dresden—poem by poem, across the span of more than a decade—he allows multiple voices, angles and perspectives to appear, shifting moods and tones to rise and fall. However, his concern with the role of the poet as “a keeper and creator of memories” remains his central focus. For too long, mourning for the shattered city had been coloured by the motivations of political interests—Porcelain can be seen as an effort to challenge and release that grief.

Fragmented and lyrical, the work is infused with historical figures and references. The city’s character is often evoked, sometimes personified, sometimes in imagined vignettes, while the fine porcelain for which Dresden is famous is a recurring motif—intact and shattered.

Swans adorned the dinner service made for Count von Brühl—
flawless just like them you were: proud, curvaceous pin-up girl.
But it almost struck you dumb with shock when the fish,
the shells and dolphins shattered into smithereens,
sinking into the depths where no word could reach.
Who would hide munitions in porcelain tureens? (45)

Grünbein also draws on his literary forbears throughout these poetic illuminations, but by far his closest companion is Paul Celan. The ghost of the Holocaust poet haunts this cycle, directly and indirectly.

The forty-nine (plus one) poems that comprise Porcelain explore the complex layers of loss, meaning and memory and together form a rich meditation on war, destruction and the question of who owns suffering. It is not a dirge but a human reckoning. The presentation of this anniversary edition is both handsome and sombre, while Karen Leeder’s translation gives the poetry an immediate, grounded feel and the detailed glossary and notes provide context, as required, to enhance the reading experience.

Porcelain: Poem on the Downfall of My City by Durs Grünbein is translated by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books.